Friday 30 September 2011
Teresa's post on 8 September was about inspiring treasures she brought
back from her travels and mini-adventures. What is the most memorable
treasure you ever brought home and what did it inspire in you?
And 5 copies of Vlll by H.M.Castor for the best answers to this one:
My motivation in writing VIII was to try and discover why Henry VIII took the extraordinary decisions he did. I wanted to be a fly on the wall inside his mind, if you like! If you could be a fly on the wall inside the mind of any historical figure as he or she lived through a particular event or experience, or took a particular decision, who would it be, what would that experience/decision be, and (briefly) why?
Many thanks to Templar for donating the books. Deadline 7th October.
Sincere apologies to other readers, but these two competitions are open only to readers resident in the UK.
Thursday 29 September 2011
ED:What first drew you to reading Heyer, and why?
JK: I came upon her novels while living in a remote part of Papua New Guinea. The town had a tiny YWCA library and she was obviously well read by the members. I remember being terribly impressed by that sense of actually being in the Regency period. She had such an amazing ability to bring the past to life, to make it real, so you could see it clearly in your mind's eye. But the thing that really set her apart for me was that she made me laugh out loud. Not many authors make me do that.
What made you want to write about her?
As I read more of her books I was continually struck by the way she seemed to seamlessly integrate the history with the fiction. I kept wondering how accurate it was and she sent me off to the history books to find out. Some years later, when I was living in the Middle East, I introduced her novels to a friend and we'd talk about them and wish that somebody would write a companion to her books that would, for example, tell us what a barouche looked like. I carried that wish with me all the way back to Australia and eventually set about writing the companion myself and that became my first book, Georgette Heyer's Regency World.
Heyer still sells by the pallet-load, when her imitators have fallen by the wayside, and she has fans such as A S Byatt, Stephen Fry, Margaret Drabble, Colleen McCullough and George MacDonald Fraser. What do you think is her continuing appeal, nearly forty years after her death?
Georgette herself always said that one of the reasons her historical fiction endured was because it didn't date but I also believe that good writing, great stories, memorable characters, wit and humour will always sell. It's fascinating to realise that of her literary generation Georgette Heyer is one of the few to have survived as a popular author into the twenty-first century. I mean she's sold a million books in just the last seven years and what modern-day author wouldn't want sales like that? Many of her readers return to her novels for comfort, to escape from the pressures of modern life or to be brought to laughter by what she described as 'her gift for the farcical'.
You’ve found lots of new material for Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller which Jane Aiken Hodge’s earlier biography didn’t have access to. What did you find? Has it given you new insight into her and her work?
This has been the most exciting part of the research journey - the discovery of several untapped archives of Georgette's letters. The largest is held by the McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa, Special Collections and others were in private hands. Because Georgette's son, Sir Richard Rougier, was so supportive, with his approval (sometimes his recommendation) and his copyright permission I was able to acquire copies of each new archive of letters. I'll never forget receiving the box of photocopied letters from Tulsa and opening it and lifting out the first letter which Georgette had written to her agent in 1923. She was still only twenty but the personality, the sense of self and the youthful confidence leapt off the page. It was an incredible moment - especially when I realised what those letter contained. Here, for the first time, was the young writer, the developing writer, and in those 251 letters I found the woman who had kept herself from the world for most of her life. As I gradually discovered more archives I found that I had a picture of the bestselling author that was far more comprehensive than anything we'd ever had before.
Of course, there was heaps of other research to be done and from those letters I developed a huge list of research lines - noting every possible clue and trying to identify every person, place or important detail which she'd mentioned. After that, I set about following them up which meant going on an amazing research journey which took me as far afield as New York and Scotland, to the Newspaper Library at Colindale where I spent days trawling through thousands (literally) of magazines to find nine long-forgotten Heyer short stories, and to every house or apartment in which Georgette had ever lived. I am a great believer in what Antonia Fraser calls 'optical research' - the practice of going to places where someone lived or worked in order to better understand their experience and the likely influences on them. I think it was hugely important to do this in Georgette's case because her home was such a vital part of her writing life. One of the fascinating things about going into the places in which she'd lived was discovering how much they reflected her preference for privacy. So much of my research has given me new insight into Georgette's character and personality, her life and her writing which I hope is reflected in the biography.
And I know there are stories which couldn’t be told while certain people were still alive. Sounds intriguing... Can you say more?
Oh yes, that's been a very satisfying part of the writing. During my research I was fortunate to become friends with Jane Aiken Hodge, Georgette's first biographer and a remarkable woman. I used to go and visit her on my research trips to England and we'd talk about Georgette and the new biography. She gave me all of her research notes from the first biog. which was incredibly generous and she also read every draft of the new book. She was a stern critic and incredibly helpful especially as I knew how hard she'd worked to gather material for that first biography. She'd had a number of restrictions on her at the time because the Heyer family didn't want certain things discussed but by the time I came to write the biography in 2005 Sir Richard was a little more open to the possibility of a more comprehensive account of his mother's life. Although he also said he never wanted me to write anything scandalous he did eventually agree to let me tell the Barbara Cartland plagiarism story in the new book - although it's really Georgette who tells it because the things she says about Miss Cartland ... That's been one of the most intensely satisfying aspects of the book - being able to quote from Georgette's letters. Her turn of phrase, her wit, her acerbity - they're all there and expressed so much better than I ever could.
Hodge also talks about Heyer preferring men to women, and living largely among them. As a strong-minded, intelligent, professional woman in a world which either ignored or disapproved of women like that, she was by no means alone. And yet her best writing - even if not always the writing which was closest to her heart – is in a quintessentially “feminine” genre. Can you explain it?
I don't know that Hodge was entirely correct. It's true that Georgette always needed the presence of a strong, cultured man in her life but she always had close women friends. I think she understood the female psyche very well, especially in matters of the heart. She was often contrary in her opinions, however, declaring herself 'unromantic' when her son and others clearly saw a strong streak of romance in her; a feminist by temperament and in practice but consistently intolerant of feminist types and the concept of women in business; often self-deprecating about her own novels and yet loving the writing of them. I think it's in that last that the answer to your question is to be found. She loved writing her novels - especially the Regencies - but for a whole lot of reasons (all of them explained in the biography) she couldn't allow herself to acknowledge it - at least not overtly. There are a few occasions when she expresses pleasure or satisfaction in her writing but they are relatively rare. She was a complex woman and acknowledging her achievements was always going to be fraught with difficualty.
You can tell from her early covers that Heyer was originally sold as a “straight” historical novelist, and only later concentrated on writing what I’d call romantic comedy-drama. Was that shift driven by her, or by her publisher?
Oh, definitely by her. No publisher ever told Georgette Heyer what to write or how or when. They could suggest, they could ask, at times they even begged, but she ran her writing life according to her own schedule. One of the lovely things about the biography is that I've been able to let Georgette explain in her own words her frustrations with her publishers over the course of her career. The shift to romantic-comedy came from her and the story of how she got there is a fascinating one.
Do you think she was frustrated in some ways, as a writer, by that shift, or rather narrowing of focus?
No, because she recognised that this was where her greatest talent lay. What did frustrate her (immensely at times) was the lack of recognition from the academy and the literati - something she craved for much of her life and somehow managed to ignore or dismiss when it came.
She also wrote detective fiction, though as a side-show and a money-earner to the historical fiction. But do you feel that the crime writing nonetheless influenced it?
She was never entirely comfortable writing 'thrillers' as she called them - although she did like writing Death in the Stocks. But that's not to say she didn't enjoy a good mystery or a murder and I think this shows in some of her later novels such as The Quiet Gentleman, The Unknown Ajax and The Toll-Gate, all of which have some kind of crime or mystery in them.
Heyer has many devotees among those of us who write historical fiction – including me! – even though we may also love rough, tough contemporary writers, or be indifferent to the genre she founded, the “Regency Romance”. Why do you think that might be?
She's unique. She not only tells a great story, with great, characters, but she's funny and she writes wonderful prose. Beyond that it's her ability to 'bring the past to life' and to give her readers so many unforgettable moments. I think it's always telling when you meet another Heyer reader and you can simply say something like 'the ending of The Unknown Ajax' or 'the ducklings and Eugenia and Lord Bromford' and they will laugh with you just from thinking about those scenes.
Many people who haven’t read Heyer think of her fiction as all moons and Junes, heaving stereotypes, and tall, dark and handsome clichés. What would you say to persuade such a reader to try one? And which would you tell them to try?
I often ask people if they read Jane Austen, if they say yes, then I let them know that many people think Georgette Heyer 'the next best thing'. She's not Austen, of course, but she was hugely influenced by Austen who was her favourite author. If they haven't read Austen then I will tell people that Heyer is a wonderful writer who wrote classy historical romances with a great deal of wit, that she constantly inverts the sentimental romance and indulges in plenty of ironic comedy. As for suggestions, well, I don't think you can miss with The Grand Sophy or Venetia or Friday's Child or Black Sheep or Sylvester or A Civil Contract or Cotillion or Frederica or... oh dear! Perhaps the best thing to do is just suggest they try one of her Regencies and see what they think.
Jen, thank you very much, and very best wishes (though I'm sure it doesn't need them!) for the launch of Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. And if anyone would like a taster of what Jen was talking about in The Grand Sophy and Venetia, my take on them is here.
Wednesday 28 September 2011
Legislation to outlaw this age-old practice was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 2003 and at Westminster in 2004. Good riddance, said many people. I was not one of them.
What has this got to do with historical novels? Two things. Firstly, novelists normally imagine the past rather than experience it directly. Secondly, it raises an interesting dilemma.
Apropos the first point, when another writer rang me wanting to know about real, old-fashioned hunting, as opposed to what goes on now, my first reaction was to send him to one of the many books that include hunting scenes: Surtees, Somerville and Ross, Trollope, or the books written by the Pullein-Thompson sisters in the 1950s and 60s – Christine P-T’s A Day to go Hunting was a particular favourite of mine. He shook his head. He’d read books. What he needed was to sit with somebody who’d really climbed onto a horse on a frosty morning, shaken out the reins, pulled on gloves and shivered with chilly anticipation. He wanted to know practical details about scent (the fox’s, not mine) and, more urgently, whether what he’d written rang true. In other words, he wanted to experience hunting from the horse’s mouth (or as near as he could get) and I was that horse. It was strange. The writer was older than me, but reading his stuff made me feel like Methuselah. As somebody who had hunted in the pre-ban way, I was now actually part of a vanished world. I’d become a bit of history.
I also feel part of history when I go deer stalking. For those who imagine I’ve got some kind of blood lust, let me reassure that the number of deer on the remote Scottish island on which I found myself a few weeks ago outstrips the number of humans by miles, and that culling is both crucial and legal. I quite accept, though, that I’m hardly essential to this process, so readers may feel I am a bit enthusiastic in the John Peel department. Be that as it may, despite argocats having largely replaced ponies as stag pick-ups, stalking provides a connection with the past that’s not breathy or wispy but as solid and tangible as the rifle. As I walk, crawl and slither behind the professional stalker, I might be my grandfather or great grandfather. I see the same view. I’m thrashed by the same rain. I feel the same stomach flutters, the same respect for the stag, the same rush of pity quickly overtaken by objective calculations of distance, movement and angle necessary for a clean shot. I witness the same gralloch*. The other week I even shot with a rifle employing a bolt action familiar to anybody who fought in the First World War. I find in stalking a sense of living history in the active sense of that phrase.
'The Road to the Isles'.
By now, some readers may be spluttering into their cornflakes, which brings me neatly to my second point. We often debate how to tackle the different moral perspectives of the past: can our hero be a hero if he doesn’t condemn the slave trade? Is our heroine going to meekly accept being married off? But nearly always the dilemma is academic and literary rather than live. There’s no question that the writer abhors both the slave trade and women being considered chattels. The question is only whether historical characters can be imbued with modern moral values.
With bloodsports, it’s different. The issue is still potent. What’s more, there’s a presumption that modern writers, being nice people, must disapprove. It’s certainly true that these days hunting appears in historical novels less often than would be accurate and almost never without condemnatory undertones. Indeed, I contend that were I, today, to offer a book commending derring-do on the hunting field, nobody would publish it. There is, after all, no group on earth as illiberal as nice people who disapprove.
Hey ho! How strangely post-modern to be a historical novelist who ends up on the ‘wrong’ side of history.
A small aside. Sitting in the gunroom after stalking, the stalker told how he’d once admired a guest’s elderly rifle. ‘Still in perfect condition,’ the stalker remarked. ‘Where did you get it?’
The reply was unexpected. ‘I bought it at auction. It was Goering’s.’
Though Goering was a keen shot, both he and Hitler were passionately anti hunting with hounds. That’s not the reason I might have refused the gun had it been offered to me. There’s real, and then there’s real.
Word of the day: gralloch: the art (and it is an art) of disembowelling the carcass on the hill. Oddly, it's more fascinating than gruesome.
Tuesday 27 September 2011
Monday 26 September 2011
Sunday 25 September 2011
For most of us, one of the joys of writing a story based in the past lies in getting a feel for the era in which the plot is set. There's nothing quite like surrounding yourself with objects that might have formed part of our characters' everyday lives.
I have a large box of bric-a-brac from 1929, collected while I was writing Johnny Swanson.
There are newspapers, coins, letters, medals, songsheets, salesmen's catalogues and several china mugs.
Indeed, it was buying a 'peace mug' commemorating the end of the Great War that first set me off on the story.
I bought it at a time when the 1914-18 war was all the rage, with quite a lot of 'death porn' around. As with our current wars, the conflict was measured in terms of corpses: shocking, horrible, and true - but somehow ignoring the grindingly awful consequences for the survivors, and in particular the wounded and their families, for whom any glamour died long before the consequences of the battle faded - if they ever did.
I imagined that peace mug gathering dust high on the mantelpiece of a home where - more than ten years on - the war still left a scar, even for a boy born after it was over.
Researching the time brought other major plot lines: the ubiquity of uncontrolled advertising (the front page of the Daily Mail at the time was, for example, an orgy of women's underwear); the extraordinary parallels between the merchants of quack remedies in the press then and on the Internet now; the struggle against tuberculosis, and Britain's familiar contempt for, and reaction against, progress made by foreign scientists, particularly if they were French.
Anyway, the point of all this immersion in the time was to be able to think my way into my characters' world: not necessarily to parade the knowledge (I sincerely hope that I have avoided the irritating info-dumping of so many historical novels) but so that I could get under their skin and make them behave in an appropriate, and convincing, way.
Some things were easy. I'm old enough to be able to remember pre-decimal money and ice on the inside of the bedroom window on a winter's morning. I grew up in a block of flats which had a communal laundry, complete with bubbling 'coppers', mangles, and drying cabinets powered by smelly gas. There we saw deep into our neighbours' lives. Corsets, to anyone of my generation, are not the saucy fripperies of the new burlesque shops, or the minute lace-up jobs of costume drama, but vast greying floppy sacks, with dangling suspenders of perished rubber,as terrifying as the fearsome women who scrubbed them at the sink. Underwear in general was thick and itchy. Nappies were rough, and dried like concrete boards.
It's great to be able to pass on some of these details to generations who have never lived without central heating, lycra, and disposable diapers. It's useful to be able to remember life before hair conditioner (which actually, to me, doesn't seem that long ago), and to be able to tell people born in softer times what it was like in the old days, even if, when going back beyond our own youth, we have work hard to take our readers with us into the past. Those of us who write for children know how quickly the present becomes the past, and how even the apparently obvious may need gentle explanation. Why should anyone under the age of twenty have any idea of a world where there was no 'War on Terror'? Why should they know that we didn't always have computers, supermarkets and free healthcare, or where the terms 'B-side' and 'spend a penny' come from? But all these things are just details of differences between lives which, though divided by time, share a lot more. The challenge for historical writers so far has been to stop the explanations and 'colouring in' holding up the story. I have a feeling that things are going to get much tougher.
Of course, there have always been changes that needed explaining. The human world is constantly reinventing itself (in a way the animal world does not). It's part of what makes us human, and the sense of 'old' and 'new' times (and their relative merits) is a core feature of ancient as well as modern, literature. What I'm suggesting here is that the interior lives people lived over the last few centuries have in fact been fairly consistent: based on a idea of the self and the individual's place in the world which has, in the West, been remarkably stable for hundreds of years; but is now, because of new technology, being fundamentally altered.
Something has happened recently which makes our generation of historical writers unique. We are the last authors with a foot in the old world where there was far less wiring running between individuals and between the subject and the State. Leave aside whether the wired world is good or bad, it's a reality. Things are changing, and for those of us who write for children, it's the readers who are changing first. When writing about the past we are going to have to explain aspects of human society that historical writers have never had to unpick before. Of course, our predecessors all had to ensure that they didn't blunder into anachronisms (such as having someone drive a car before they were invented, or fight witht he wrong kind of sword) but right down to the present day all storytellers, in whatever genre, had as key narrative tools the twin commonplace realities of privacy and untraceability: the capacity of any character to be unspectacularly unaccounted for as they went about their daily business, just as everybody was in real life. To oversimplify, until very recently, when someone went out of view, no one could be absolutely sure where they were. The default mode was to be out of contact. There were times when that was not the case (for example if someone was under deliberate surveillance for some reason) but that was unusual.
Along with this went the unremarkable norm of being underinformed. Until very recently, most of us didn't know much about what was going on around us (either at a domestic or national level) and had few ways of finding out, even if we wanted to know. Even thirty years after the Second World War, it would have seemed unremarkable that on the eve of D Day the Germans had no idea that the biggest invasion fleet ever assembled was only a few miles away. To anyone born after 1990 it must seem incredible that the allies passed messages to and from resistance agents in continental Europe by carrier pigeon - and replaced those birds with new ones crammed into cocoa tins and dropped by parchute. The information feed for Churchill in the 20th century was not really that much more speedy or sopisticated than it was for Marlborough in the 18th, but now, quite suddenly in historical terms, there is an assumption that everyone knows, or should know, everything all the time.
My point is that what now appears as stumbling around in the dark was, for centuries, just the ordinary background to how people conducted themselves. Most of the time, no one was entirely sure where people were, or what they were doing, and that was the framework on which most stories (unconsciously) hung. Up to now, all readers and listeners inevitably bought in to the idea. It's been the foundation for chases, deceptions, misunderstanding and intrigue in fiction down the ages. We never even thought about it, just as we accepted a world without extendable dog leads or wheels on our luggage.
Some authors are already responding to the stifling grip of information by creating worlds of their own. I'm sure one of the attractions of writing fantasy is the ability to set new rules, to recreate the climate for those chases and blunders. It's interesting how many fantasy worlds are essentially old, rather than new, fangled, even when they are set in a mythical future. Those of us who are sticking with the real world might learn something from the way good fantasy writers establish the frameworks within which their characters operate. We, or our successors, are going to have to do something pretty similar. It's important that we take warnings from the bad fantasy writers too. The danger is obvious, and horribly common: a descent into the minutiae of process that kills the tale.
From now on, in the same way as we have to help our audience think itself into life before cling film, when writing about the past we are going to have to recreate and point up the mindset that took everyday ignorance, independence and autonomy as a fact of life. Any writer or reader born today will have to make that jump as deliberately as we w0rk at at comprehending feudal farming or shared water pumps. New young writers will have to make an imaginative leap to portray something that was previously a simple, unacknowledged, component of the human condition - instantly understood by author and reader alike.
But those of us who were there before mobile phones, ATMs, satnavs, CCTV and the Internet are the last generation who can remember what day-to day existence in the uninformed, untraced world was actually like. In future, getting the 'feel' for ages unmediated by microchips will be a matter of research. For most of us History Girls, it's still in our blood. We have a duty, and the ability, to tell the new kids on the block how it felt and how it allowed us to behave.
Saturday 24 September 2011
Friday 23 September 2011
In 1973, I was an English-language assistant in Solingen, in north Germany, which was in the industrial state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. That state had more places for English-language assistants than any other in Germany, and was also at that time dirty, unglamorous and polluted. Consequently, almost all of the people who ended up there - me included - had asked to be placed somewhere else.
But Nordrhein-Westfalen actually felt sorry for us, or maybe wanted to encourage people to apply there, so they gave us all a free trip to Berlin in the March of the school year. It almost made Solingen worthwhile.
We drove, in our coach, up to the border crossing at Helmstedt-Marienborn, and were on the motorway corridor to Berlin. I remember flat fields still tilled with horse-drawn ploughs, watchtowers, and bridges slung with huge GDR slogans; then it grew dark and we were roaring into the night, into emptiness, it seemed. We stopped halfway at the sole service station; it felt like a place that existed only as an island in darkness, a no-man's land place, glaringly lit, divorced from any hinterland - which it was, of course. Somewhere along the way an East German police car appeared and waved our coach down, to fine our driver for spending too long in the outside lane. Maybe it had, but we were all very indignant about it, seeing it as harassment, and did a whip-round for the fine.
I remember the transmission tower at the crossing into West Berlin, and more watchtowers. I remember driving into the city and coming into the brightly, tackily-lit Kurfürstendamm, then West Berlin's major shopping street. We stayed in one of the hotels that were just huge apartments, which had once belonged to wealthy people, maybe Jews, and went out onto streets where tourists walked past whores who exposed shivering bare legs to the icy winds that sweep the wide streets of the city in the cold months of the year.
I had no camera, but bought postcards and kept scraps, so I have a few little bits of Ostalgie in the scrapbook I made then, like a sachet of East German sugar. I see from the scrapbook that we went to see Kleist's 'The Prince of Homburg,' and that we went to the Opera, though I can't remember what we saw. We went to the big art gallery, which was in Dahlem at that time, and I saw Nefertiti in the Pergamon Museum in the East.
But it was the sense of history that amazed me; and Berlin is still a city where the leaves of history lie about in the streets like an untidy autumn. It was inconceivable to me then that one day I'd stand in a reunified city and look back at that first visit as another of those leaves of history, any more than I could really conceive of being over fifty. But I found there the visible and obvious relics of the Third Reich, whose traces had been tidied away in the Wirtschaftswundery Federal Republic which had been Germany for me, up till that week. There were bullet marks still on the buildings - actually, they're still not hard to find, but then the buildings were dirty, and, in the East, often ruinous, as if I'd found myself suddenly in 1946. The Lutheran Cathedral in the city centre was open to visitors but you couldn't go into the main part of the building because it was dangerous. Rubble lay all over the floor, as if in the immediate aftermath of a bombing raid. In the West, of course, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church tower stood at the top of the Kurfürstendamm, blackened and ruined by the air-raid I was to describe years later in Saving Rafael. But there had been much rebuilding there. Money was poured into West Berlin.
They took us to the Olympiastadion, with its Fascist brutalism, where Hitler had watched the Games in 1936 - and raged when Jesse Owens beat his own Aryan star - and probably still more because Lutz Long behaved like a sportsman. We were taken to the shed at Plötzensee where the 1944 conspirators were hanged with piano wire, and I felt as if their horror and anguish had stayed in that place, chilling the air.
Then there was the Wall. It ran through Berlin, separating husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and family from each other. I had a Great- Aunt Hedwig and a Great-Uncle Martin, still alive then, who I never knew because they were on the wrong side of that frontier. With its sensors, its floodlights, and its patrolling armed guards, it was deadly. Due to the odd shape of the divided city, the Underground went through Eastern stations where you couldn't get out, and on each one there stood a guard with a big gun, ready to shoot anyone who might penetrate down there and try to jump onto a Western train. There were platforms set up on the Western side for people to climb and wave to their relatives, and of course the tourists used them, especially since their use had declined somewhat since Willi Brandt had negotiated visiting rights with the GDR government - to the scandal of right-wing German politicians. The minute you got up there, a police car or truck would spot you, and you'd feel the armed guards' binoculars trained on you. It felt hideously uncomfortable. It was meant to be so.
I stood looking over the death strip and tried to imagine it away; imagine a city where you could move freely from one part to another. It was a dream hard to believe in then, a dream that could make you cry.
As well as our conducted tour into the East, of course we went there independently, not through the privileged vehicular crossing point of Checkpoint Charlie, but through the pedestrian frontier at Friedrichstrasse station. You got your passport taken away from you, then you sat on hard rows of seats in a huge hall with the number they'd given you instead. I didn't think I'd hear my number called out, and was scared I'd be there forever. At last I was called in, stared at, required to state why I was not wearing glasses as in the photograph - I was wearing contact lenses - and finally released, having exchanged the obligatory six D-marks for Ost-marks. (Eastern Marks)Actually, though less high-tech, it was quite like going through airport security nowadays, but I wasn't used to that kind of thing then.
Mitte (City Centre) was gaunt and bleak in those days. High walls of grimed brick and sandstone; apparently empty streets and the feeling that somebody was watching you. I'm sure they were. In reaction, we started to sing 'On Ilkley Moor Bart'at' and skipping across the Alexanderplatz. Maybe there's some film of that still extant in a Stasi archive. I had the worst meal I've ever had in my life (including school dinners) in the café underneath the Television Tower. The only people you saw were scuttling along in a dreadful hurry, if they weren't queueing outside shops with merchandise scattered sparsely along the shelves. It was hard to find anything to spend our Ost-marks on.
I also went to see my great-uncle Erich and his wife, Tante Else, in their flat in the working-class district of Wedding - a name that has nothing to do with getting married. They gave me coffee and cakes and I saw their tiled stove, which Erich insisted on keeping on in preference to central heating. The tiled stove lives on in the pages of Saving Rafael, but the area stayed in my mind till I wrote Last Train from Kummersdorf - even though in the end I made Effi, my heroine, live in Prenzlauer Berg.
In many ways, it was like the time I first went to demonstrate, at two in the morning, against Cruise Missile convoys coming back into Greenham Common. There was the reality of the Cold War, visible and suddenly undeniable. And also the reality of the war itself, which was the precursor to my young life, and which had carved its traces into my mother and my grandparents (and into my father, but it took longer for that to come home to me). It was a growing-up, a removal of the security blanket.
What strikes me now is the incredible care with which I made the scrapbook. That wasn't at all like me. I was slapdash and casual in those days. It was almost as if my unconscious mind drove me to keep that record, because one day - and even then I knew I was going to be a writer - I would need it.
Thursday 22 September 2011
I think one reason that photographs can be such a good jumping-off point for a story is that we know they are the product of a moment. Apart from trickery in the enlarger, on the re-touching table or now on a computer, a photograph is unmediated: the camera can only speak as it finds. And it's not only photographs - images - which get my writerly self dancing and thinking, it's photography itself.
Even if the sitter has carefully chosen to represent themselves in a certain way (and that, in itself, is revealing), another moment might have made them look very different - have you ever seen a handful of snaps of yourself up on someone's Facebook page after a party, and thought you almost looked like different people, depending on angle, light and so on? A portrait is painted in time and so it's a collection, a distillation, of the artist's conception of the sitter. But a photograph is a step out of time, and therefore - paradoxically - it speaks of Time, and how it moves, as few other artefacts can.
If you've ever stood in a church where your historical character stood (as I did with Elizabeth Woodville in A Secret Alchemy) or read a notice that said "George Washington slipped here", you'll know what I mean. There's a shiver you get when you realise that but for the thinnest possible veil of time the past is here with you or you've stepped into the past. And with photographs it does come down to physics. The controlled tarnishing of silver bromide (or silver chloride or one of the other silver halides) is all that actually records the image in the camera, even with colour photographs. Photons from the sun (or now from a flash) touched that real, actual person, and were reflected away to touch the photographic emulsion on the film or glass plate, and blacken it in proportion. Of course, we're most familiar with the negative/positive process, when the print in your hands may have been made any time from the next day, to a century later. But if it's a daguerreotype, or one of its descendants such as the tin-type beloved of fairground photographers in the 19th century, then the plate is the photograph, there, in your hands.
In The Mathematics of Love, my 1976 narrator, Anna, begins her story thus:
It's an early daguerreotype, more than a hundred and fifty years old. That's a positive process, I usually explain, the plate exposed directly so that each is unique... If you tilt it towards the light, the image gleams and shimmers, so exact, so bright and so dark, that the moment of its taking seems to live inside the glass. The sun touches the pillars and chimneys of Kersey Hall and flickers among the dark, late-summer trees. Its light lies on the lawn, strokes the curve of the steps, slips through the half-open door to where a figure in a long dress stands. It was then - that moment - that the shutter opened, and snatched a scatter of the light and dark, throwing it on to this piece of glass, fixing the sun and shadow of those few seconds for ever. And the sun moved on and took the day with it, while the plate held those shadows and kept them, and carried them to other places and other times before it was found again. One of those times was mine.
And later in the novel, although much earlier in Anna's life, veteran photographer Theo - who I modelled on Robert Capa - says this:
"...all photographs are about death, really, and time: about preserving a moment in silver and chemicals, when life itself is never preserved, when every cell of everything is already decaying, and being replaced, and decaying again. The subject and the image co-exist for the moment that the shutter opens and closes. And then the subject decays but the image lives on unchanged."
"It makes it sound like a ghost."
He grinned at me. "Oh, Anna, does the idea give you gooseflesh all over?... but a photograph does prevent something - somebody - from being laid to rest."
I moved a little, and felt the slight, hot roughness where my shoulders were newly brown. I looked down and saw that the image of the dark straps of my top was printed pale by the sun.The Mathematics of Love is all about ghosts, without really being a ghost story. And if I told you what I mean by "not really" it would spoil things, but the more I thought about light and where it falls, the more places I found - such as Anna's sun-tan - where it's part of how we experience time and our selves. I don't believe in ghosts - hence my "not-really". But I think what ghosts embody and express about our sense of the past is endlessly fascinating - and not just the past, but the dead and the still living and the might-have-been. And in that way, a photograph is like a historical novel as much as it's a historical record; it embodies the dead quite literally, in silver halides, in a way which lives absolutely in our moment. As A L Berridge was saying, it therefore embodies the might-have-been, just outside the frame. It's more like holding a letter written by that person, than it's like looking at a portrait painted of them. Writing historical fiction is all about using imagination (rooted in research, of course) to cross over from the present into the past. With a photograph, the past crosses over into our present.
Wednesday 21 September 2011
Reading Louise’s blog yesterday got me thinking about the many different methods we use to get a sense of the past. I’m a great fan of photographs and paintings, those moments in sketches and portraits that give a glimpse of the personalities and preoccupations of the past. OK, I promise to stop with the alliteration for the moment. I’m also a great fan of the object. The book, the fragment of cloth, the dinner plate or the toy ship and all the questions they offer you as line of enquiry. Who made this? Who used it? Where did it come from and how did it end up here? (wherever here happens to be - junk shop, museum), but surprisingly enough this year the single thing that gave me most, fresh questions to ask, and insights into the 18th century, was a biscuit.
Let me explain. Early in the year I took a group of booksellers and bloggers on a short walking tour of central London to some of the locations that feature in my second book, Anatomy of Murder. Now, my concentration wavers if I don’t get fed on a regular basis, so I thought it would be a good thing to take something along
as a snack for us all, and as the book is set in the late 18th century, I thought I should aim for a late eighteenth century treat. I had just come across this: Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It’s a fascinating book, published first in 1747 and was one of the first practical cookery books published in English. So I found a biscuit recipe and asked my long suffering partner, Ned, to put a batch together.
He had quite a time of it. At first glance you can see that the basics of a biscuit as we know and love it are all there: sugar, flour, eggs and flavouring, but if the bakers among you start to look more closely, you’ll see there are some odd things going on. First of all that is a lot of eggs, probably three times as many as you’d use to make a cookie dough now. So were eggs much smaller in the 18th century? Probably. Certainly agriculture was going through a revolution and animals were getting a great deal fatter, but unless Hannah really wanted a dough that was an impossible
to shape at all, I’m going to go for yes, eggs much smaller. I’m four words into the recipe and already I thinking about the agricultural revolution in a fresh way.
Then there are the flavourings. Sack is a fortified white wine, from Spain or the Canaries, and sherry comes from the name of one sort of sack, but what did sack taste like in the 18th century? Was it much the same as sherry is now
? Sweet or dry? Why can I not get sack in the supermarket now? Port seems to have become popular in England early in the 18th century after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, but it doesn’t seem to have made it to the kitchen. Hannah mentions port once, in a recipe to pickle a buttock of beef, sack gets 53 mentions. And all that coriander! An ounce of seeds! Ned used a quarter and they still rather overpowered the rose water. Was that the foodie fashion of the time? Did coriander not taste as strong then as now, and how could that be? Then there is that beautiful detail of the feather as a tool in the kitchen instead of a brush. What sort of feather? Were they saved for this sort of use when you plucked a chicken? I have a sudden image of a woman applying egg-white onto her coriander cookies and the past is suddenly present, but at the same moment those seven lines of text have given me a quick reminder of some the questions we forget to ask.
The biscuits came out beautifully by the way, not like any biscuit I’ve had from a 21st century recipe book, but sweet and citrus and spicy, but then Ned is a fantastic cook. There, two things to remember if you want to be a historical novelist, ask yourself new questions and marry a great cook, the sort willing to turn the kitchen into a historical laboratory and report back. I might ask him to make the cordial poppy water next. Any recipe that begins ‘Take two gallons of very good brandy…’ sounds promising to me.
Oh, you can find a video version of the tour here. Apologies, but we ate all the biscuits.
Tuesday 20 September 2011
I didn’t have a Holbein in 17th century France, where both Honour and the Sword and In the Name of the King are set. French painting of the time is mostly highly formal, and pays closer attention to clothing and setting than it does to the face.
Here, for instance, is a picture of 17th century French clothing, with Louis XIV inside.
Inspired? No, I wasn't either.
Fortunately I tend to avoid writing about Kings and Major Personages anyway, so I can make my heroes look just as I please. Thanks to Penguin I know exactly what André de Roland looks like, and it’s this.
But I wonder if it can sometimes be a drawback to know what our characters really look like. My first venture into historical writing was at age 7 when I wrote shockingly bad ‘fanfic’ based on the film ‘Zulu’, doubtless inspired by the manly glamour of the stars. Then my historian father insisted I do some proper research, and I was horrified to find ‘Lt Bromhead’ didn't really look like Michael Caine at all.
Superficial, of course, but I somehow didn't feel quite the same after that...
The truth is there's something very uncompromising about photographs. Historical novelists can easily forget the reality of bad teeth, smallpox scars and unwashed bodies when they consider the work of tasteful portrait painters – but photographs show everything but the smell. I suspect ‘scratch’n’sniff photos of the past would be the death of historical romance.
But my next novel (Into the Valley of Death) is set in the Crimean War, and here I have to use photographs. The pioneer Roger Fenton took a huge and impressive collection, but although they certainly show the reality of the bearded and unkempt soldiery (a million miles away from the glamorous young men in the 1968 film ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade') the nature of early photography means they still can’t show personality in the way a Holbein can. The ghostly flatness of sepia robs the figures of substance, while the formality of the poses endows them with the glassy eyes and frozen features of dead people standing up. In a picture where the subject has had to sit unmoving for several seconds nothing natural remains to be read.
Or so I thought. But even modern formal photographs reveal vulnerability the moment we understand what they really are – a manifestation of how the subject actually wants to be seen. In ordinary life we protect ourselves with a string of familiar excuses (‘What, this old rag? I only flung it on at the last minute’) but there’s no escape in a photo. Like it or not, we’re telling the viewer ‘I think I look nice in this dress, I think this expression is particularly winsome’. When the dress doesn’t actually work the result can be devastating. One of my favourite photographs is of a baptism group always known in the family (rather unkindly) as ‘Auntie Mary’s Shoes’…
Historical photos have even more of this quality, because the art was so new and a photograph was a special occasion – perhaps the only one its subject would ever have taken.
Here’s one of my Crimea favourites, of a cornet in the 11th Hussars who looks magnificently martial and heroic until we start to question the suspicious swelling of that puffed out chest. With apologies to the poor man’s memory I’m afraid it makes me think of this famous advertisement for tuna…
This photo gave me the inspiration for one of my characters, not for his appearance, but his personality – just the attitude he takes to being photographed.
Here’s another I think reveals even more:
There’s no pretence here. His posture is slumped as if he doesn’t care what people think of him, and the hunted expression speaks clearly of a man who didn’t want to be ‘taken’ at all. But there’s humour in that face, and I’m almost certain he’s looking at someone out of shot who’s trying to make him laugh. Just on this picture I decided he was his own man, and with a hint of devilry beside.
He was. He turns out to be Captain Verschoyle of the Grenadier Guards, who led a group of volunteers to stand with the 93rd Highlanders in the Thin Red Line at Balaclava, and saved the colours of his regiment at the Battle of Inkerman. He was, in fact, a hero, and I had already planned to feature him in my novel.
I’m not sure we could learn so much from a painting, even by Holbein. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed his sitters to behave as the men in this last picture do, where not even one is looking in the right direction.
It only works when we know what it is – the group photograph of the 13th Light Dragoons who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade. The tall man with the beard is Colonel Doherty, who missed the Charge altogether, but these other men all rode into the Valley of Death – and came out again, leaving the bodies of their comrades behind. Those averted heads say it all.
That’s what the best pictures do. They don’t just show what’s inside the frame, but what’s outside it, perhaps even what happened before and after they were taken. It’s easy to imagine my Auntie Mary putting on those horrible shoes with pride in their glorious whiteness, but I can also see the cornet flopping with relief in his saddle the moment the photographer finished, and hear Verschoyle’s laugh as he was released. The faces of the Dragoons are hidden, but even without seeing them I think we all know what they show.
When I think of that, then perhaps I’m not so jealous of Holbein after all.
A.L. Berridge's website
'In the Name of the King' was published by Penguin August 2011
'Into the Valley of Death' is slated for June 2012
Monday 19 September 2011
Seated by chance at a Society of Authors dinner with Naomi Tarrant, Head of the Costume Museum in Edinburgh, I had a wonderful conversation which made me think seriously on the importance of clothes in characterisation.
I was writing REMEMBRANCE, my book about youth in World War One, and wanted to know if it was true that the name of a new colour known as “munitions blue” had come into use then because of the blue overalls designed for women munitions workers to wear. We went on to discuss the huge change in fashion that took place during the first World War.
I commented on the raising of hemlines from which I managed to get a lighter note into a section of the book - quite difficult to do when writing about that War. Naomi said that it wasn’t the raising of hemlines that she thought made a significant difference in women’s lives but the widening of skirts. She asked me to consider how a modern woman is forced to walk if her skirt is constrained, for example wearing a long tight dress to a formal occasion. We take smaller steps, we move gingerly up and down stairs, off and on pavements etc, and, she pointed out, often you lean on someone’s arm (usually a man’s). Think of suddenly being able to walk along widely and freely pacing your steps. Good grief, you might actually run! Think of what happens inside your head when you’re doing this, of actions you can take and the many varying decisions you might make, and how this helped change women’s views and attitudes.
My aunt who worked as a land girl in World War Two said the very best part of it was that she got to wear trousers which meant that as an adult she could once again do a handstand in public! It was something she’d loved doing as a child but had to give up when she got older and wore stockings and suspenders with dresses and skirts.
THE NOSTRADAMUS PROPHECY takes place in sixteenth century France during the Regency of Catherine de’ Medici and the Saint Bartholomew Day massacre. In it the heroine, Mélisande, daughter of the court minstrel is forced to flee and disguises herself as a young man in order to escape. Partly this was the dictates of the plot as she would be safer and attract less comment if she travelled as a boy rather than a girl, but it did allow for some interesting developments.
But then, terrified at being left behind, she copies their ways and grabs the arm of the boy nearest to her and shoves herself rudely in among the group. Although she knows she’s pursued and is in fear of her life she begins to recognise the freedom the disguise gives her: the access to knowledge, the ability to go where she pleases, to listen to conversations she wouldn’t normally hear. In order to speak to Nostradamus, the famous soothsayer and discover whether his prophecy about the Angel of Death refers to her own family, she travels to his home in Salon in the south of France. Here, in her guise of a young man, she flirts with the girl selling apples in the market. When the apple seller blushes and gives her the apple for nothing Mélisande is gratified by the power her new role affords her.
This is challenging for the writer. The character behaves differently from before, because, within the story, she has to act as a boy. But during this period her mindset would alter and thus her character accordingly. Therefore so should her reactions to future circumstances and situations.
As my story progressed the ramifications of the girl as a boy grew greater. The Governor of Salon, Lord Thierry, hears Mélisande playing her mandolin on a street corner. He appreciates musical talent and is moved by and attracted to the young player…
Theresa Breslin’s latest historical novel, PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION, has been shortlisted for the Young Quill Award & the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards.